Friday, 22 February 2013

Hobbies: Post a pick-me-up!


      Writing is a solitary vocation. Each day, I steel myself to sit still, to fill an unforgiving computer screen with words, characters and plots. My mobile is silent; my Internet is off. Sans deadlines or the buzz of a workplace, the experience can be soul-sapping. Or deeply energising — whenever the words pan out right.

       Stillness fuels my wanderlust. My mind migrates to faraway Bratislava or dinner with Inuits. Devouring dal-roti on my futon, I imagine lime-cured Peruvian ceviche on my tongue.

      In the 21st century, amidst nuclear families, single parents and growing isolation, we depend increasingly on sms, email and social networks for communication. Few inter-personal alternatives loomed until I chanced upon Postcrossing ( in July 2012, catching me off-guard. I wondered: Who writes letters in our wired age? 

      I found out since that over 384,347 Postcrossers from 217 countries do (all data pegged to February 14, 2013). The site tagline reads: ‘A postcards exchange project that invites everyone to send and receive postcards from random places in the world. For free!’ Post offices across the globe, verging on closure, took note. Especially when the project’s exchanges touched one million registered postcards in April 2008, then soared from 10 million postcards in January 2012 to (believe it or not) 15 million by December 31.

      Listed by The Washington Times in January 2013 among 11 ‘unusual and bizarre hobbies’, alongside guerrilla gardening, robot-building, and competitive dog grooming, how did Postcrossing begin? A nomadic geek of Portuguese origin, Paulo Magalhaes, 30, set it up in July 2005 while at university. Manned by volunteers, the project currently generates an average of 10 received postcards globally every minute. 

Paulo and his partner Ana pore over postcards

      Berlin-based Magalhaes responds over email about its impetus: “Email is a fantastic communication tool. I use it every day. However, email and social networks have become omnipresent. They are no longer special, but rather banal. They carry short-lived messages that are almost always quickly discarded.”

     The Postcrossing founder-manager stresses, “However, a postcard is very different. The sender handwrites a message specifically for you. Writes your address, stamps it, and posts it at their local post-office. Then it travels several hands, possibly over country borders until it reaches your mailbox, probably hand-delivered by your local postman. Receiving mail brightens the lives of thousands of people every day… Postcards are meaningful and tangible. In a day and age where digital ways of communicating are become more cold and distant, it is even more special to receive something you can put on your fridge door or take with you to work.”

     India’s 1,676 Postcrossers could not agree more. ‘Penpalkamran’ from Kalyan-Dombivili (Maharashtra) leads the desi pack with 2,195 sent cards. He was unavailable for comment. Pune-based Mukund Chiplunkar, 59, a chemical engineering consultant, is a close second. His 1,900-plus cards have traversed over 13 million km.

     He first heard of Postcrossing on BBC’s Click Online in 2006. Chiplunkar, an active participant on Facebook’s Postcrossing India page, shares his experiences at member-meets in Pune — as do other Postcrossers in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Over postcards and coffee at the GPO or a café, members discuss life stories, first day covers, and geocaching, while they pen cards to pan-India fellow enthusiasts.

     How has Postcrossing impacted Chiplunkar? On email, he writes, “Most Indian Postcrossers practise this hobby alone, but with passion, within their immediate family. However, they don’t feel lonely. For Postcrossers, every day is a new story and every postcard is a new opportunity. It is up to him/ her to make the most of it. This keeps the Postcrosser going through mundane activities with eternal hope.”

     Personally, the first Postcrossing card I sent out arrived at the door of Willi in Germany in 11 days. He turned out to be the highest-ranked Postcrosser ever (10,012 sent cards over six years). My first incoming card, from Dresden, carried American poet James Baldwin’s philosophical lines, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Bingo! I am a Baldwin fan.

     Every Postcrossing encounter has changed me since July 2012. I now swap directly with an Italian retiree in Turin, the recipient of the 15-millionth postcard. He is a vital cog in my circle of communication, which currently embraces Portuguese and Chinese schoolgirls, an aspiring Russian writer, a Spanish nurse, even a Dutch grandmother. 

An Inge Look 'Granny' postcard

     As an art aficionado, I have celebrated aboriginal Dreamtime drawings from Australia and Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ from France. But my major discovery was already a Postcrossing cult — the irresistible Granny postcards by Inge Look, the Finnish gardener-turned-artist ( I wear a wrap-around smile all day when I receive a Look.

     Chance encounters dot the route to postcard nirvana. The postman on our beat often stops his moped on the kerb to hand-deliver my bunch of cards from Slovenia, Antigua and Barbuda, and Russia. His colleagues at the local post-office giggle as they frank my outgoing cards, checking out the bright images.

     True to Magalhaes’ vision, Postcrossers today range from children learning English or geography at school to their grandparents — and every shade of person in between. Project statistics prove that, far from living in device-driven virtual space, the average Postcrosser is about 26!

     Numerically, Russia has 42,200 Postcrossers, followed by the US (41,492), China (35,561), and the Netherlands (25,992). At 770 postcards an hour, and 2,043,406 laps around the world, the few locations untouched by Postcrossing might justify a teetering off the map: American Samoa, Malvinas, the South Sandwich Islands, Tokelau and so on.

     The solitariness of writing daily no longer troubles me. All I need to recharge my creative spirit is a long-distance telecon with a dear friend or a postcard from Cyprus, Japan, or Finland. Reading between the lines, my blues vanish in a trice as I set off for unexplored destinations.

(This article originally appeared in The Hindu Business Line on February 22, 2013)



  1. Hello, I visited your Postcrossing proile and there I found a link to this article. Great job, I enjoyed reading it. Happy Postcrossing from Poland :)

  2. Sounds like a good idea. Interesting article too.